Starred Up

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Starred Up
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDavid Mackenzie
Written byJonathan Asser
Produced byGillian Berrie
StarringJack O'Connell
Ben Mendelsohn
Rupert Friend
CinematographyMichael McDonough
Edited byJake Roberts
Nick Emerson
Music byTony Doogan
David Mackenzie
Creative Scotland
Quickfire Films
Northern Ireland Screen
LipSync Productions
Sigma Films
Distributed byFox Searchlight Pictures
Release dates
Running time
106 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$3 million [2]

Starred Up is a 2013 British prison crime drama film directed by David Mackenzie and written by Jonathan Asser. Starring Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend, the film is based on Jonathan Asser's experiences working as a voluntary therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth, with some of the country's most violent criminals.[3][4] The title refers to the early transfer of a criminal from a Young Offender Institution to an adult prison.[5]


Eric, 19, is "starred up" from a juvenile prison to a high security adult prison, based on his age and his history of violent behavior. His father, Neville, is serving a life sentence at this prison, and is a lieutenant for the crime boss that runs the prison. Eric soon begins attacking guards and inmates alike, but is rescued from retribution from the guards by Oliver, a volunteer prison therapist, who convinces Eric to join his therapy group.

The group is composed of black men who also have violent pasts, which they are trying to confront. The sessions often degrade into angry, posturing tirades by members against others, which Oliver de-escalates but uses to help them understand their rage. Eric begins to observe this format, and also bond with the other group members. While his father has ordered him to "learn to behave" from the therapist, he is annoyed by his son "fraternizing" with blacks. But when three inmates are paid with drugs to "dunk" Eric in his toilet, one of his black group-mates steps in to save him.

The father and son have an explosive up and down relationship, with the father attempting to instill his dominance, and make Eric follow the prison rules so he can get out. When Eric however attempts to explain his feelings to the uncomfortable Neville, Eric intuits that his father is in a romantic relationship with his cellmate, and is disgusted by it.

The boss, Dennis, appears to begin to mentor Eric, seeing his younger self in Eric. However, after Eric attacks Dennis, Dennis orders the prison director to kill Eric. While Neville is telling Dennis that he will not abide the death of his son, prison guards in the basement begin to hang Eric, so it will look like suicide. But when Dennis goes to stab Neville, Neville overpowers him and stabs him, then runs down and rescues Eric.

As Neville is being transferred out, the guards allow father and son a tender moment.



On 8 October 2012 it was confirmed that Mackenzie was attached to direct the film in Northern Ireland, with O'Connell attached to star as the male lead.[6][7] On a budget of £2 million, shooting was based in former prisons HM Prison Crumlin Road in Belfast and HM Prison Maze in Lisburn, which was a 24-day shoot including 18 days of stunts.[8][9] Principal photography started on 11 February at Crumlin Road with the post-production scheduled to begin during May.[10]

Financing for Starred Up was provided by Film4 alongside Creative Scotland, Quickfire Films, Northern Ireland Screen and Lip Sync Productions.[11]


The cast and crew of Starred Up at its BFI London Film Festival premiere in October 2013

Starred Up premiered at the Telluride Film Festival,[12] before screening at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on 9 September 2013,[13] where it opened the official sidebar section, Special Presentations, sparking both acclaim and praise, the London Film Festival on 10 October,[14] the Les Arcs International Film Festival on 15 December,[15] the International Film Festival Rotterdam on 24 January 2014,[16] and the Tribeca Film Festival.[17]

On 8 October 2013, Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired the distribution rights to Starred Up in the United Kingdom shortly after the screenings at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.[18] On 7 November 2013, Tribeca Film picked up the North American distribution rights to Starred Up, with a planned 2014 theatrical release.[19]

The film was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 21 March 2014.[11]


Starred Up received critical acclaim by critics and at festivals, for its acting (particularly for Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend), David Mackenzie's direction, realism and the father-son dynamic of Asser's screenplay. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 99% out of 108 critical reviews about the film were positive, with an average score of 7.9/10, thus qualifying the film as "Certified Fresh". The website's critical consensus states, "Smart, hard-hitting and queasily realistic, Starred Up is an instant classic of U.K. prison cinema."[20] Metacritic, another review aggregator, assigned the film a weighted average score of 81 out of 100 based on 26 reviews from mainstream critics, which indicates "universal acclaim".[21]

Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter spoke highly of the piece, particularly the "unpredictable dynamic between Eric and his father Neville", and praised enormously the acting performance of O'Connell, "Young actor Jack O'Connell is the main attraction in this tough British drama." and further adding, "O'Connell would seem to have live wires running through his whole body and it should be very interesting to follow his career from here on."[22] David Sexton of the Evening Standard praised the film, commenting that, "Starred Up is the finest British-made prison drama for a long time, courting comparison even with the likes of A Man Escaped."[23] Guy Lodge of HitFix was very praising of O'Connell's performance: "O'Connell's scuzzy charisma and chippy swagger has enlivened a handful of B-level Britpics in the past, though his presence has never been so fearsomely concentrated as it is here."[24]

Peter Debruge of Variety noted praise of Mackenzie, remarking, "Mackenzie isn't attempting to craft a larger-than-life antihero here, but delving into the sociology of this hellish subculture, where prisoners and staff alike coexist in this dehumanizing environment." and that of Asser, "Asser brings more than just realism, however, crafting the central father-son relationship on the foundation of classical Greek tragedy."[25] Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph commented of the piece, "Prison films have always had their share of surrogate father-son bonding, so there's something satisfying about making it biological - it's a shrewd twist in the formula."[26] Tom Huddleston of Time Out stated, "For the most part this is furiously compelling stuff, convincingly mounted and superbly acted."[27]

Rich Cline of Shadows on the Wall, while noting that the piece "deploys cliché in the prison-thriller genre", also opined that "it continually twists its story in more personal directions, which allows the fine cast to create vividly intense characters." Furthermore, praising the acting, " O'Connell delivers a powerfully involving performance that captures Eric's inner emotional energy with remarkable balance." as well as those of Mendelsohn and Friend. And Mackenzie's "earthy, edgy direction."[28] Lisa Giles-Keddie of HeyUGuys praised Mackenzie's film and the underlying angle, "exploring the miserable fallout of domestic violence on children." She continued by praising the performances of O'Connell and Mendelsohn, citing, "Some outstanding performances from O'Connell and Mendelsohn, both hugely exciting actors in British cinema today." As well as Mackenzie's "commendable direction" and "talent".[29] Jessica Kiang of IndieWire gave the film an "A−" rating, stating, "Starred Up, like its characters, never loses face, never compromises its bloodily-earned hard-man cred, yet its real agenda is one of compassion." and praising the acting, commentating, "Mendelsohn is amazing" and "The supporting cast all do excellent work too, but this is Eric’s story, and so it’s O’Connell’s film. His performance is a revelation."[30] Allan Hunter of Screen International commended the father-son relationship of the piece, "A complex father/son relationship is viewed through a raw depiction of prison life in the riveting Starred Up."[31]

Jason Gorber of Twitch gave the film an "B" rating, stating "Starred Up is a gritty, intense and shockingly unique take on the prison drama genre." Heralds the acting O'Connell and Mendelsohn, "O'Connell's performance is one of the finest of the year, and Mendelsohn once again demonstrates his unique brand of cold hearted intensity.", as well as Asser's screenplay, "Asser captures life in the system with enormous clarity." And notes the depth in its execution, "Shakespearean in its levels of violence and manipulation".[32] Anton Bitel of Eye for Film stated, "McKenzie's [film comes with] high ambition in the pecking order of the prison flick - a subgenre known to be overcrowded, hierarchically organised and unforgivingly hostile to any weaker new entries." Adding, "Clichés are avoided by the complicated characterisation of both Neville and Oliver."[33]

Emma Simmonds of The List spoke positively and commented, "Starred Up gives you a good sharp shake and, in doing so, truly opens your eyes." Describing Asser's script as "authentically abrasive and peppered with welcome snatches of humour" and both Mackenzie and cinematographer Michael McDonough as being able to "capture the volatility of the environment without surrendering sensitivity to character."[34] Chris Bumbray of was most praising of the piece, especially the acting performances. In regard to Mendelsohn he stated, "[Mendelsohn] manages to hold his own opposite O'Connell's almost Brando-like performance." And of O'Connell, "O'Connell is brilliant, managing to give Eric a kind of Bronson-like intensity, although they keep him sympathetic in that it's clear that his rage is a by-product of a vicious upbringing."[35]

Eric Kohn of IndieWire gave the piece an "A−" rating, commenting of director Mackenzie, "Pushing beyond the brutal exterior of his material, Mackenzie reveals the tender story of estrangement beneath, but never forces the sentimentality." And additional, "British director David Mackenzie's gradually affecting "Starred Up" has all those ingredients but uses them for more precise means that merely revealing the harsh nature of life behind bars. Mackenzie applies a sharp kitchen sink realism to this haunting setting and directs it toward an ultimately moving family drama that just happens to involve vicious convicts."[36]

Mark Kermode of The Observer gave a positive review of the piece, commenting, "Mackenzie keeps us grounded in the maze of prison life, coaxing powerful performances from his cast, each apparently encouraged and emboldened to find their own space." Speaking highly of Friend's performance as "terrifically edgy" and describing O'Connell's as "[An] electrified and electrifying performance" furthering such a statement by remarking "there's a hint of the young Malcolm McDowell about him." He concludes by praising cinematographer Michael McDonough's ability to "[capture] the claustrophobia of the physical environment without reducing the characters within the frame."[37]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
British Independent Film Awards[38] 8 December 2013 Best British Independent Film Nominated
Best Director David Mackenzie Nominated
Best Actor Jack O'Connell Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Ben Mendelsohn Won
Best Supporting Actor Rupert Friend Nominated
Best Screenplay Jonathan Asser Nominated
Best Achievement in Production Nominated
Best Technical Achievement Shaheen Baig Nominated
Dublin International Film Festival[39] 22 February 2014 Best Actor Jack O'Connell Won
Irish Film & Television Awards[40] 5 April 2014 Best Editing Jake Roberts, Nick Emerson Nominated
London Film Festival[41] 8 January 2014 Best Film Nominated
Best British Newcomer Jonathan Asser Won


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  18. ^ "Film4-backed drama Starred Up acquired by Fox Searchlight". Film4. 8 October 2013. Archived from the original on 12 October 2013. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
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  31. ^ Hunter, Allan (10 September 2013). "Starred Up". Screen International. Retrieved 11 January 2023.
  32. ^ Gorber, Jason (17 September 2013). "TIFF 2013 Review: STARRED UP, A Gritty And Intense Morality Play". Twitch Film. Archived from the original on 14 March 2014. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  33. ^ Bitel, Anton (17 October 2013). "Starred Up". Eye for Film. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
  34. ^ Simmonds, Emma (16 October 2013). "Starred Up". The List. Archived from the original on 21 October 2021. Retrieved 16 October 2013.
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  37. ^ Kermode, Mark (23 March 2014). "Starred Up review – a powerful prison drama that pits father against son". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
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